Thursday, September 10, 2009

Anti-Locavore Book...

James McWilliams has come out with a book lampooning 'eat local' activists and proposing a solution to our food system crisis that includes the use of pesticides and genetically modified crops. I haven't read this one yet, but let's see what some of the critics have to say...


'“The locavore approach to reforming our broken food system has serious limits-limits that our exuberant acceptance of eating local has obscured,” McWilliams writes. In their application of a simplistic valuing methodology (judging food purely by how far away from one’s plate it originated), he claims, these 100-mile dieters could potentially do more harm than good, if they succeeded in their apparent mission to force the entire world’s eaters to choose food grown within a short drive of their kitchen table.

The problem with this argument is its irrelevance. The few truly orthodox locavores who presumably exist (do you know even one?) aren’t close to persuading the world to eat the way they do. To devote an entire book to debunking the impulse to eat closer to home doesn’t address the points raised by food and farm activists. At their most relevant, today’s alternative eaters illuminate the systemic problems created by industrialized food provisioning: negative impacts on the global climate as well as significant deterioration in water quality, soil quality, local economies, worker justice, and human health.'

Reason Online:

"[McWilliams] makes it clear, as diplomatically as possible, that the idea of using organic methods to feed the world's population—projected to peak at nine billion in the second half of this century—is a pipe dream. More like a nightmare, really, given how much pristine land would have to be plowed under to compensate for the lower yields of organic agriculture and how many megatons of manure would have to be trucked hither and yon. McWilliams boldly but ­correctly calls for "dispensing with the organic/conventional framework" altogether and ­instead focusing on the costs and benefits of specific ­methods and technologies."

Amazon Online Reviewer:

"Just Foods is an important book in the continuing (and continually escalating) debate over how we should grow our food and what we should eat. Environmental historian and reformed locavore James McWilliams, invites us to think logically and dispassionately about some of the most important food issues of our time--and of the future. Having read two of McWilliams' previous books, I expected a controversial, detailed, and well-documented discussion. I wasn't disappointed."

So, while we are all tempted sometimes to spend our days only watching MSNBC or Fox News, of course we all know it's best not to immerse yourself only in media that supports your current belief system. I'm curious to hear McWilliams' point of view, and to draw my own conclusions about whether or not he is making a valid argument. Anyone who has read this book, let me know! I do want to point out that I do not believe in the 'population crisis' argument -- that GMOs, pesticides and other artificial means will be necessary to feed the skyrocketing number of people on this Earth. We are already in an extreme state of overproduction, growing plenty of food to feed, in the very least, our own population in the US. The problem is that all of it is feed corn for industrial beef, and those who are starving, regardless of how much food there is in the world, will continue to starve because they have no means to access that food.

Still, I haven't read the book. As a final comment, it's kind of funny that there are people out there arguing against locavorism, since overall it tends to be such a benign, feel-good movement out to make people happier and healthier. And I do have doubts about these arguments (like the one behind this NPR article) that attack certain movements or ideas for little more than not doing 100% of what they are purported to accomplish. Locavorism may not be perfect (for example, as the Grist author mentions, we can't feed everyone on an orthodox locavore diet) but does that mean the idea as a whole is pointless, irrelevant, or actually damaging to the earth and human society? Obviously not.


  1. McWilliams is history professor. Just because you disagree with him doesn't mean he's wrong, does it?

  2. As far as I know, I didn't suggest at all that I either disagreed totally with McWilliams or thought he was wrong. As I mentioned in the post, it is important when you care about an issue to view it from many different angles.

    I must say, however, that McWilliams' status as a history professor and specialist in Colonial/American history does not seem to particularly qualify him as an expert on food systems and organic agriculture.

    As I said, however...I still haven't read the book...

  3. While the short-term benefits, reducing famine, etc, of the Green Revolution are clear, the long-term viability and sustability of the Green Revolution appears to be less clear as illustrated in this NPR story:
    As far as the value or benefit of an individual consumer's decision to eat real food, mostly vegetables, that are grown or produced locally, whenever possible, it just has to be a positive, good thing.

    While it is true, as my economics professor once told me, that markets work, we must be careful to factor in all of the socio-economic costs of production. Of course, if we don't care to do so, we should just shop and live within a big box store. In any event, it's ultimately up to each of us to answer this question and others like it ourselves. We created the market, and we can change the market.